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The Guys (Focus) and The Good Thief (Fox Searchlight)

Temptation for a writer lurks behind catastrophe. Whenever something dreadful happens in the political world, writers are tempted to respond. When Hitler appears, when the atomic bomb makes its double debut, some playwrights and novelists are impelled to respond in their art. Film writers are not immune, though for intrinsic reasons of their medium, their response is not so quickly apparent.

The impulse of these writers is more than understandable: the lack of it would be moribund. But, shaken by horror, they do not always consider whether they have anything to add to the subject. The point is not whether they have more facts—who would expect that of them—but whether they can deepen in some way our experience of the event. The flood of emotion in those writers usually sweeps away such questions. Anne Nelson’s play The Guys was presented Off-Broadway some months after September 11. It is a memorial to the hundreds of New York firefighters who were killed in the World Trade Center cataclysm. Nelson made her memorial a two- character play, and a number of well-known actors took turns in playing the two people. Everyone concerned obviously wanted to affirm their grief at the event and their respect for the consequent heroism. Now The Guys has been filmed, directed by Jim Simpson, who directed the play and co-wrote the screenplay with Nelson. The two actors are Sigourney Weaver (who is married to Simpson) and Anthony LaPaglia. Weaver plays a writer. LaPaglia is the captain of a Fire Department company who must speakwho wants to speakat the funerals of the eight men in his company who were lost at the Trade Center. He cannot compose anything adequate; Weaver, who has just met him, agrees to help. The bulk of this eighty-five-minute film consists of the captain’s memories and descriptions of those menmost of them, anywaywhich are then arranged by Weaver in speakable form. At the last we see LaPaglia deliver one of the elegies in a church.

The blunt trouble with The Guys is that we don’t in any way need it. Moments in it are moving, of course, in the way that the obituary notice of any good life is moving. But Nelson’s writing, as arranged by Simpson, adds absolutely nothing to our experience of September 11. Worse than that, it isn’t even explicitly about September 11, which is hardly mentioned. As far as this script is concerned, those eight men could have died in a factory fire or a traffic accident.

Simpson has directed sensitively. He is especially acute in the use of space. Occasionally there are shots outside the rooms where most of the film takes place, but Simpson knew that this one setting, which helped to compact the play, could confine the film, and he has used compositions and editing that keep the film from feeling hobbled. LaPaglia, presumably with Simpson’s help, plays with a sensitivity to phrase and inflection that he has not always shown. Weaver, intelligent as usual, never lets the character’s honesty become egregious. More, she can do what actors don’t always do well: she knows how to listen. But Nelson’s play is only the result of that perennial temptation for writers. It merely attests that she is a member of the shocked community to which all of us already belong—and we have reasons more complex than any that she presents.

NEIL JORDAN IS, willy-nilly, building a career out of pathos. This Irish director, obviously a man of serious ambition, keeps making films that ought to be more effective than they are and that leave us feeling a bit sorry for him. Of the Jordan pictures that I have seen, The Crying Game is the best. About the love of a soldier for a man he thinks is a woman, it explored some delicate areas of feeling, and it was a complete, finished piece of work. But Jordan often chooses a subject that promises much and then breaks the promise. Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair ought to have made a good film, but Jordan’s distorting screenplay and directing left it flat. The project that seemed most apt for this Irish director was Michael Collins, especially since Liam Neeson was to play Collins. Yet despite the admirable Neeson, the result was fuzzy. And now Jordan has chosen to re-make Bob le Flambeur.

An interesting idea. The French original, done in 1955 by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a cool, ironic film noir that, in its rejection of traditional cinematic upholstery, is now considered a forerunner of the New Wave. (Melville was an exemplar to many directors in that wave.) Jordan has adapted the Melville screenplay, has directed, and has called it The Good Thief. But it isn’t. The silhouette of the original is visible. A world-weary thief, here made an American in France, has retired from crime and now spends his time and money in two ways: gambling and drugs. Funds are getting low, so when he is invited to join in the robbery of a casino in Nice, he pulls himself together and accepts. Also involved is a quite young girl to whom he becomes a sort of father-and- lover. But Jordan has loaded the stark original with lots of trite dialogue and plot excrescences. The result is so burdened with murky counterpoints that the story, particularly as it gets to the heist, is just confusing.

Three elements are notable. (Not the new actress who plays the girl; she is dull.) Nick Nolte, as Bob, endows the screen with his hulking corrugated presence and his exultation in it. Nolte has sometimes done some remarkable acting—for instance, in that post-O’Neill New England drama Affliction—and he has also sometimes merely ambled through lesser films. Here he does neither. He apparently had little interest in Bob as a character, but he takes the picture seriously enough that his film-weathered personality, seemingly full of secrets and resource, keeps us more attentive than the plot does.

The score by Elliot Goldenthal mutters ominously throughout. And the cinematography by Chris Menges, who did Michael Collins, is virtuosic. The effect is most distinctly not Melville’s noir: Menges gives the film a range of color and lighting that is too subtle for the material.

It’s not the differences from Melville’s original that hamper Jordan’s film. It’s the lack of clarity and intent. No one could doubt what Melville was after: a transmutation into the visible of spare hard-boiled prose, the American prose of which France was so enamored at the time. But Jordan’s intent is not clear. Did he want to update Melville in a temperamental and textural sense? Intriguing as that plan might be, the result looks only like Melville wrenched out of context. The Good Thief merely adds a new tinct to the pathos of Jordan’s career. Once again we see a director who is better than anything he has so far done.

This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.